By Rafia Zakaria
June 12, 2019
THE American University of Afghanistan was supposed to be a jewel sparkling amidst others, provided by the Americans as they transformed the country into a modern state, complete with a well-funded university. It was the stuff of neo-liberal dreams, with a vast array of subjects and majors, a US trained faculty — all of it to train deprived Afghans and enable a tremendous cultural and political revival, sans the Islamist Afghan Taliban.
If there were doubts, no one dared utter them. Uncertainty of purpose, questioning of the precept that the war that was waged to remake Afghanistan in America’s democratic and educated image, would deflate the men and women who were putting their lives on the line to make it a reality.
This week, an investigator tasked with looking into the misuse of funds at the American university in Kabul did speak up and he summed up the situation thus: “If the United States government had paid to send every Afghan graduate to college in the United States, it would have spent less money than it did on financing a troubled, English-language university for them in the Afghan capital.” Over the past decade, as the war in Afghanistan was dragged on by changing US presidents, the American university in Kabul was able to see the graduation of only 1,216 students. According to the calculations made by investigators looking into the misuse of funds, each of these students cost the American taxpayer $126,000 per student or $163 million.
It is no surprise, given these figures that the university may soon cease to exist. According to a report published in The New York Times, the university which was supposed to be one of the most high-profile projects that the Americans were undertaking in Afghanistan may soon run out of money and shut its doors. USAID’s contract to keep the university open and functioning is set to expire soon. Administrators at the university said they had the funds to keep it going until the end of June. Beyond that, there was no plan for what would happen to the campus or the enrolled students.
There was even less of an idea as to why the institution, which had hoped to provide a state-of-the-art American-style education to young Afghans, has become such a cesspit of graft and criminal corruption.
Some clues may lie in the other stalled effort being carried out by the Americans in Afghanistan. Last month, the sixth session of the talks stalled and ended without progress after just two days. The US Special Representative Zalmay Khalizad decried the slow pace of the talks given the continuing Taliban attacks against civilians and asked both sides to “reduce violence.”
It is a routine sort of statement in recent times, as the surprising turn of the United States to undertake negotiations with the Taliban has become less startling. The American University of Afghanistan, whose campus vicinity recently saw yet another bomb attack, is another matter. The university was supposed to signify all the neo-liberal values that the Taliban have openly decried. Male and female students studying together, no requirements of covering and veiling for students, Western-style instruction in English — all representing the Afghanistan whose realisation the Taliban have fought hard to prevent.
But that would have been the university of American dreams. The truths coming out of the investigation of the university now reveal that the kind of educational institution envisioned by both by those who fought against it and those who championed it, never was. In its place was a fragile structure whose mechanisms of accountability and evaluation were a house of cards, penetrable and easy to bypass.
Administrators and educators who were a part of it seemed to have concluded early on that the US promise was hollow and unrealisable. Better then to divvy up the spoils while it could still be done, steal and hide and embezzle while the going was good, and the Americans were doling out the cash.
Those days are obviously now over. Trump’s USAID has already seen huge cuts and Afghanistan is not on the president’s list as the recipient of benevolent dole-outs of cash. It is in this sense, an analogy to Afghanistan itself. While the American war was based on defending avowed liberal and democratic values and the Taliban who opposed them, the real threat to a revamped Afghanistan has been the more workaday evils of corruption, stealing and the misuse of funds. There seems never to have been a plan to combat these or to prevent them from derailing projects like the set-up and administration of an entire university.
The clock is ticking on the American University of Afghanistan. According to a report published by SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the university has lost $63m since 2012. Its proponents have not yet given up, however, with many of them arguing that this is higher learning under special circumstances. Not all institutions of higher learning have to move to a heavily fortified campus because of repeated bomb attacks and unending threats from terrorist groups. If it costs more to administer, then it is not because of internal problems but these external ones.
It is a wishful sort of excuse and no one seems to be buying it in D.C. So far there are no pending measures that would provide emergency funding for the university. Its fate, then, seems to be the one that could have been predicted long ago, an institution where too many were stealing instead of enabling higher learning — an institution that like the American dream for Afghanistan, has crumbled and crashed to bits.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.